‘Practical Experiments in Hope’: Morag Shiach and the Hopeful Work of the Arts, Humanities, Education, and Creative Practice in Troubled Times

Charlie Pullen suggests we look to the career of Professor Emerita Morag Shiach for inspiration in what the arts and humanities can do within and beyond the university. Here, in an adapted version of his opening remarks to the Practical Experiments in Hope conference in March 2023, he explains why we should view education and creativity as hopeful resources which we can use to combat the enveloping despair of our present moment.

On the dark and rainy morning of Saturday 18 March 2023, colleagues from Queen Mary and beyond joined me at Practical Experiments in Hope – a day of celebration to mark the retirement, in September 2022, of one of the School of English and Drama’s longest-serving and most distinguished colleagues: Professor Morag Shiach.

In whatever capacity we know Morag – whether we’re colleagues from Queen Mary, former students, collaborators from different universities and organisations, friends, family, or some combination of the above – many of us will be aware of the central, decisive role that she has played in the formation of English, Drama, and the institution as a whole here at Queen Mary. Across some thirty-five years – a period in which she served in many leadership positions, from Head of School to Vice Principal for Teaching and Learning and subsequently Vice Principal for Humanities and Social Sciences – Morag’s dedication to the shaping and development of this university and especially to arts and humanities education and research has been unmatched.

Arriving in 1987, Morag came to Queen Mary first as a temporary lecturer in English, before becoming permanent the following year and then, in 1999, Professor of Cultural History. Over that time Morag has been at the forefront of great and progressive changes at Queen Mary as well as an expansion of higher education more broadly. To take the English department as just one example of those transformations: when Morag first came to work here at the tail-end of the 1980s (another low, dishonest decade not unlike our own in the 2020s), the English department took just 25 students a year; now it’s more like 200. When Morag arrived at Queen Mary, we didn’t have a Drama Department – and it was she who played no small part in the founding and growth of what is now a pioneering centre for the study and production of theatre and performance.

But many of us, within the School of English and Drama and further afield, will also know Morag through her work as a notably prolific and incredibly versatile scholar. From her early research on popular culture and feminist studies, and her wide-ranging publications within the field of modernist literature and cultural history, to her more recent turn towards work in the cultural and creative economy, Morag’s career has been marked by a unique degree of flexibility and by a dedication to fostering connections and conversations reaching across disciplines, institutions, and sectors.

That commitment to interdisciplinary study, and that capacity to turn her hand to an extraordinary range of subject areas and methodological approaches, is borne out in Morag’s educational trajectory. She began her academic career with a degree at the University of Glasgow, starting out in English – a department which, quite unlike our own here at Queen Mary today, she found to be ‘disengaged’ and uninspiring – before switching to an innovative programme in Drama and Philosophy, the first student to take such a combination of subjects at that university.

It was at Glasgow, coincidentally, that Morag seems to have developed a taste for university leadership. There she served in numerous student council roles, voicing her progressive views on student politics in the Glasgow University Union paper – as she does here, in this clipping from 1978, which details her work in anti-Apartheid and anti-Nazi movements, as well as her commitment to increasing student grants and improving democratic representation at the university.

(Image Source: University of Glasgow)

From Glasgow, Morag continued her journey across disciplines (and indeed the world) by taking a Master’s degree in Communications at McGill University in Canada, where she read literature, media, and film studies, and wrote a thesis on ideas of ‘the popular’ in cultural studies, the front page of which you can see reproduced below. That MA dissertation led into her PhD at Cambridge on the historical development of a critical discourse on popular culture from the eighteenth to the mid-twentieth century, which was supervised by the great cultural theorist Raymond Williams.

(Morag’s MA thesis from McGill, University in Montreal, Canada)

On the day of the conference, colleagues in the School of English and Drama and I created an exhibition of just some of the many publications Morag has produced throughout her career.  And so, in preparation for this display, I took a trip to the library to see what books I could find. During this trip, I was struck by two things. Firstly, by how well-used Morag’s books clearly are by our students and staff: hardly any page in her volumes is left untouched by pencil markings and sticky notes. And secondly, I was struck by how far I had to walk around the library to find her work. I began, in the history section, where I picked up her first book, an adaptation of her PhD thesis from 1989, Discourse on Popular Culture: Class, Gender, and History in the Analysis of Popular Culture. From there I found myself having to walk to the modern languages section to find her study of the French philosopher and writer Hélène Cixous (A Politics of Writing, from 1991).

After that, I had to walk to sociology to get a copy of her edited volume Feminism and Cultural Studies (1999); and then, to English literature, to pick up various works on modernism, most notably 2004’s Modernism, Labour, and Selfhood in British Literature and Culture, 1890–1930. The search continued: from there I went to economics to find Cultural Policy, Innovation, and the Creative Economy: Creative Collaborations in Arts and Humanities Research (2016). These were just some of the intellectual products of Morag’s career. But by the end of this trip around the library, aside from being quite worn out and weighed down with all these books, I had got such a strong, experiential sense of the sheer range of Morag’s work – this ability to produce highly influential and impeccably researched scholarship within and across disciplinary boundaries. Who amongst us could have their work spread so far across a library?

Morag’s ability to bring together and to create connections between disciplines and practices that might otherwise simply not get much of a chance to talk to each other was demonstrated vividly at the Practical Experiments in Hope conference, which saw assembled colleagues from English, Drama, and Creative Writing, of course, but historians too, and scholars from modern languages, geography, law, and economics, as well as from arts projects, heritage organisations, and museums. So it was then, on that cold and wet morning, we came together at Practical Experiments in Hope to continue that spirit of conversation and interdisciplinarity that Morag had long pioneered through her work.

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And yet, when I first began planning the conference, I was, I must admit, more than a little overwhelmed by the prospect of bringing together this incredible range of interests, experience, and expertise in Morag’s career into just one day. When I sat down with Morag in late 2022, I asked, pleaded really: ‘You’ve done so much, Morag! How can I possibly tie it all together into a single conference?!’ And Morag, with characteristic clarity, composure, and modesty too, replied: ‘Yes, it is quite a lot. But there is a thread running through it all. And it’s that old Raymond Williams thing, of resources of hope. The arts and humanities, literature and the study of literature, education, and creativity as resources for a journey of hope. Resources, as Williams once put it, to make hope practical rather than despair convincing.’

And there we had our keywords for the day. From then on, re-reading Morag’s work, I found that thread which I should have seen all along – not least in an article she wrote for Paragraph in the year 2000, right on the cusp of the millennium, which gave us our title and central theme for the conference. In this fascinating essay, ‘Millennial Fears: Fear, Hope, and Transformation in Contemporary Feminist Writing’, Morag – showing once again her versatility and her willingness to engage with the actualities and difficulties of the present moment – identified in a variety of feminist writers of the time what Raymond Williams might have called a structure of feeling: a particular mood, or effort to respond to fear and despair about the political realities of the day with a defiant, hopeful outlook. Hélène Cixous, Judith Butler, and others, Morag argued, were carrying out through their writing ‘a practical experiment in hope, or perhaps in refusing fear.’ Those writers were meditating on and expressing the possibilities, she said, ‘of the collective and individual construction of hope.’

(Charlie Pullen presenting at Practical Experiments in Hope, 18 March 2023. Photo by Richard Ashcroft)

From the perspective of our own day, over twenty years later, in the face of the horrors of the pandemic, humanitarian crisis, climate breakdown, economic disaster, the systematic divestment of the arts and cultural sector, and, more locally, the devastation of university departments and entire disciplinary communities, the need for such a hopeful energy seems both immeasurably necessary but also increasingly inaccessible, impossible. Despair seems all the more convincing; fear seems impossible to refuse.

 I myself am one who, like Connie at the beginning of D.H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, tends to think of our particular historical moment as a tragedy. ‘Ours is essentially a tragic age,’ Lawrence wrote in 1928, in the fallout of war, plague, economic and political crisis, so much that seems familiar to us. ‘The cataclysm has happened’, he writes, ‘we are among the ruins.’

It’s very telling, however, that when Morag came to write about D.H. Lawrence and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, she drew out and emphasised the rest of what Lawrence says. And here is the opening paragraph of the novel in full:

Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover ‘thus begins with catastrophe and ruin’, Morag says in her book Modernism, Labour and Selfhood, ‘but it also begins with the necessity for hard work’. With both disaster and the possibility of carrying on.

Here then we had, at the start of the conference, the beginnings of an answer to the question, ‘why “practical experiments in hope”?’ In what ways might we imagine hope to be a practical and experimental process? What might the arts and humanities broadly conceived have to do with the making of hope in dark times? My answer, riffing on Morag, was because hope is hard work. Because it is, as she says, something we ‘construct’, which we build, which we make practically in the here and now even as the sky has fallen. And that reminded me too of something the science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin said about love: “Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone,’ she said: ‘it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.’

Hope, then, might not be something that just sits there waiting to be picked up, but instead the work of hope might be something we have to do and keep doing. As an experiment, as an open-ended process, we might not know the outcome of this hopeful work, we might not have a smooth road or clear view of the future, but that, I suggested, is the journey of hope, that is the path we must take to discover a new and better future.

My suggestion for us on the day was that we must look to the the balance between, as Lawrence says, cataclysm, ruin, and the hard work of rebuilding; or, as Morag says, between fear and the refusal of fear; or despair and the construction of something better. For in that uneasy balance, I ventured to propose, that is the space of hope, that is the location where our practical experiments in hope take place. And throughout the day, in our speakers’ presentations and through open discussion with everyone there, I invited us to explore, test out, and discover what hope we might still create with the work we do in the arts and humanities, in education, and in our creative practices.

During the day we shared our experiences of teaching and learning with Morag, as students and as lecturers; we reflected on her work shaping educational institutions beyond Queen Mary, such as the founding of our partnership schools like Draper’s Academy; and we discussed the interaction between arts and humanities research with the wider world of the creative economy, including via the class politics of the publishing industry. What became clear to us across the event was the possibility that such a conference, with its potential for facilitating collective discussion, sharing, and forming generative connections between disciplines and practices, might itself constitute one of the most fruitful opportunities for carrying out our own practical experiments in hope.

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Those of us who could be present on the day were there to celebrate Morag, to thank her for all that she’s made possible for us, and to recognise the way her work has shaped and will continue to shape our own work, whatever that is – whether it be academic, administrative, creative, or some blend of all three. And it was in that spirit of tribute that I ended my welcome talk on a personal note – by briefly gesturing to the impact that Morag has had on me, on my life and work, as a student and now a member of staff at Queen Mary. For my own history is very much bound up with the work that Morag has carried out and made possible during her time here at this university.

Arriving as an undergraduate just over ten years ago to study English, I was one of the many, many students who came and still come to Queen Mary from working-class backgrounds and the first in their family to go to university. I couldn’t have known it then, but coming here I was stepping into an institution that had been, over many years, built and shaped to transform the lives of those who might not otherwise get the opportunity to experience higher education, much less to work in it.

While here, even though Morag – then Vice Principal – was not teaching in the department, her presence was felt in the incredibly diverse and stimulating learning I was taking part in, on a degree programme that allowed me to move across methodological approaches and genres of literature and media: my studies led me directly to her work on popular culture when I wrote essays on topics as diverse as the film Titanic or cultural responses to Princess Diana’s death; to Cixous when I studied the reception of ancient myth in modern critical theory; and to Virginia Woolf, especially Morag’s 1992 Oxford University Press edition of A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas, which did much to foster my own interest in the vexed topic of education in the modernist period.

After that, as a Master’s student at Queen Mary, I came to Modernism, Labour and Selfhood, which became, then as now, a model of the sort of modernist literary scholarship I wanted to do: richly cultural historicist; attentive to the dynamic relationship between literary forms and their changing political and historical context; and committed to the study of alternative and marginal traditions within the literature and culture of the early twentieth century. It was inevitable, then, that I would go straight to Morag for a PhD on modernism and education, her supervision of which – with Scott McCracken – was by turns generous, exacting, and empowering.

(Charlie Pullen, Morag Shiach, and Scott McCracken)

And one of the greatest pleasures of the conference was to see more of Morag’s former students return to Queen Mary to reflect on the power of her teaching and mentorship, including the writer Lynsey Hanley, who in her memoir Respectable: Crossing the Class Divide (2016)writes of her journey from a working-class home on a Birmingham council estate, via a traumatic interview at Cambridge, and eventually to Queen Mary, where she was interviewed much more supportively and given a place by Morag. Hanley recalls the Queen Mary of the 1990s as a beacon of progressive higher education, as a place which ‘resembled far more closely the dream that some of us have of all children getting a good education’, she says: an education ‘which equips them both to function well in the society we have and to take part in building the society we hope for – regardless of their origins.’ If ever there was an articulation of what a practical experiment in hope might be, there it is, in Hanley’s account of the transformative potential of a properly inclusive and socially-directed form of higher education.

After a long and productive career, Morag now gets the chance to enjoy her well-earned retirement. For those of us who remain working at Queen Mary and at universities and the cultural sector more broadly, I suggest Morag’s work still has lessons for us. As our day of discussion, sharing, and conversation unfolded at the conference, and as I reflect on the day now, my final thought for us was and is that we look, for inspiration, to the breadth of Morag’s work, at Queen Mary and beyond, as one quite varied but continuous project committed to the principle that the arts and humanities, education, and creative practice are some of our most vital and enduring resources – the tools and the very basis for our practical experiments in hope.

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Charlie Pullen

I grew up in Brighton before coming to Queen Mary in 2012 to study a BA and then an MA in English. I then worked in widening participation at another London university before returning to QMUL to begin a PhD in English. My thesis is about literature and experiments in education in the early twentieth century, focusing on the writing of figures like D.H Lawrence, H.G. Wells, Dorothy Richardson, and on the philosophies associated with education institutions such as Summerhill, Steiner schools, and psychoanalytic nurseries. I also continue to work in university access and widening participation, and am currently Schools Outreach Officer in the School of English and Drama, delivering the new Show and Tell project.

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